Migrant Lives

Izmir, The Hub Of Turkey’s Migrant Smuggling Ring

A vacation destination in western Turkey is now at the center of the human trafficking of Syrian refugees and other migrants trying to make the perilous sea journey to Europe.

In Izmir, where life jackets have replaced bikinis and pareos
In Izmir, where life jackets have replaced bikinis and pareos
Marine Vlahovic

IZMIR â€" A gold watch on his wrist, rings on his fingers and a rosary in his hand, “Haji the wise” meets us in a traditional Turkish restaurant in Izmir. It is a two-hour drive from this renowned vacation destination in western Turkey to the beaches where hundreds of refugees board every evening in an attempt to reach European shores.

These are also the beaches where dead bodies are washed up. “There’s been a lot of work today and it'll be the same thing tomorrow," says Haji, one of the smugglers cashing in on the wave of would-be immigrants. "There are so many of them who want to leave.”

Last week, some 20,000 migrants got to Europe through the network based in and around Izmir. Convicted several times for various forms of trafficking, the Syrian-Kurdish smuggler is one of the big bosses of the illicit business.

Amin, a former Syrian student, approaches, and Haji smells a potential costumer. “I’m 64 and I’ve been here for 15 years. I can be trusted,” he tells the young man.

The “wise” old man is smiling as he ticks off the wide range of services he can arrange: “A pleasure boat? No, they're wooden boards put together. If you want to travel safely, you can do it on a cargo ship. For 5,000 euros, you can go into the cabin, next to the captain," he says with a wink. "But, if you’re afraid of the water, you can cross the border by car for 2,500 euros with false documents. We won't have any problem finding you a fake Romanian, Bulgarian or Greek ID.”

No liras

For a few months now, the Basmane neighborhood, around Izmir’s main railway station, has become a hub for smugglers â€" and a destination for migrants yearning to leave. In the shop windows, orange life jackets have replaced bikinis and pareos. A peddler sells off buoys before the astonished gaze of a few tourists. In restaurant windows, placards flourished during the summer: “We exchange money.” The clandestine crossing of the Mediterranean has to be paid in dollars or euros, not in Turkish liras.

Often with a black backpack to carry their only belongings, thousands of Syrians and Iraqis walk up and down the streets of this seaside resort. Some of them lie down on cardboard boxes directly on the ground. In the shadow of the train station, a huge globe stands as a bitter reminder that the refugees struggle to get anywhere.

Amin, who was a student at Damascus University, decided it was time to flee his war-torn country. He happened to find his friend, Khatar, by chance amid the stream of prospective emigrants heading westward through Turkey. And the pair now are trying to figure out how to make the next part of the journey into Europe.

Every evening, hundreds of illegal immigrants are driven away from Izmir to beaches along the Turkish coast. At dawn, they board inflatable boats heading towards the Greek islands of Kos, Chios or Samos. Khatar, who once studied at the prestigious Beaux-Arts academy in Paris, has already experienced four false starts, and now has been stuck in the seaside resort for eight days. “Police controls are multiplying," he says. "There are too many of us. We need to be patient.”

Amin is still hesitating. He approaches a cafe called Sinbad the Sailor. Smugglers and others hocking goods and services swarm around migrants like vultures. Abou Amar meets with his “customers” on a shady terrace. The former sniper of the Free Syrian Army, opponents of Bachar Al-Assad’s regime, was recruited by a fellow fighter to become a smuggler. For less than 1,000 euros a month, he acts as an intermediary â€" a “samsar.”

A squad of Syrians, Kurds and Egyptians work for smugglers, helping them to pull in migrants, get paid and guide them to inflatable boats driven with “Made in China” engines. “Those damned engines always break down," Abou Amar grumbles. "We are constantly calling the Turkish coast guards to warn them that crafts are drifting."

Whatever the condition of the engine, the price is the same: 1,100 euros with no fixed date for the departure. Some also offer to reach Greece by Jet Ski for 1,800 euros, or by ship for 2,300 euros. Regardless, it is a trip that is impossible to do alone â€" even if it is short â€" because smugglers watch the coast.

Abou Amar says that this growing business is run by “a dozen Turkish mafiosi,” along with one Russian who has other interests. The Syrian man lowers his voice: “Once, when there were passengers already on board, I could hear my "colleagues' ask if the boat was empty or full. I was told they were speaking of drugs.”

Since then, the former sniper quit. “It’s a really disgusting job," he says. "These people sell everything to go to Europe. Smugglers and corrupt customs officers are building a fortune off their backs.”

No guarantees

The hotels in Basmane have also been doing well. Exclamations in Arabic resonate across the cheap lodge where Amin booked the last available room. In the hallways, the guests make phone calls to reassure their relatives, via WhatsApp, Skype or Viber.

A small group of Syrians turned up within these yellowing walls a few days ago. Coming from Hama, they travelled through zones controlled by loyalist forces, the Free Syrian Army and ISIS, before reaching Turkey. “Are you sure we’ll get to Greece?” one asks Abou Youssef.

Seated on the entrance hall of the hotel, the young Kurd answers them in broken Arabic: “I can take you to the boat. Then, nothing is guaranteed.”

Quietly, the smuggler explains how it works: “You deposit the money in an agency. Once you're on the island, you call me and you give me the transaction number to collect the money. It’s easy, isn’t it?”

The group of Syrians are wary, and the negotiation stalls over the question of how the passage will be guaranteed. They leave after shaking hands.

“I seldom go see my clients. Usually, they come to my office,” says the young man, who himself left Syria two years ago. Amin has a lot of questions. “There is no danger in boarding an inflatable boat. The proof: Next week, my children and I will make the trip,” the man insists.

Amin asks again about other ways to make it to Europe. “For that, you need to see my boss.” That’s how Amin made it to the restaurant table where “Haji, the wise,” was waiting.

After some more questions, and thinking about it, the university student finally makes a decision: He will not go to Europe. “At least, not like that. Not treated like cattle.”

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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